Photographer’s Angle: Unusual Views of City

Posted November 19, 2010 at 5:48pm

In most cases, a lawyer who moved to the District 35 years ago would have become a political lifer by now.  

But this one is a photographer and has been for a quarter-century.

Steve Gottlieb, a lawyer turned artist and author, left his job as an attorney with a government-sponsored corporation in the 1980s, and he has been photographing Washington and other cities across the country ever since.

He’s now the director of Horizon Photography Workshops, a firm that he founded in Maryland six years ago, and his work is featured in a new exhibit at the University of the District of Columbia called “Washington: Portrait of a City.”

Gottlieb first published a book bearing the same name in 1985, and updated editions have been issued before; the newest version of “Washington: Portrait of a City” was launched three weeks ago, and the UDC exhibit is timed to coincide with the book’s rerelease. 

The exhibit includes about 40 photos of traditional District landmarks, and Gottlieb has attempted to make his images unique by shooting from different angles and under unusual conditions.

That could describe his transition from a career as a lawyer to one as a photographer, as well. Gottlieb moved to Washington to practice law in 1975, and he soon took a job with the Synthetic Fuels Corp., a government-funded company whose aim was to develop alternative energy sources, such as oil shales and liquefied coal, to limit dependence on foreign oil. 

Gottlieb said he will never forget that his final act as a lawyer was testifying in front of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

“The very next week, I gave my first published book to the chairman of the board of our corporation. I said, ‘It’s been a pleasure,’ and that was my last act of having a regular job,” he said.

Since then, Gottlieb has developed a reputation as a photographer of iconic American images — another book of his, “Abandoned America,” has won several prizes — and “Washington: Portrait of a City” fits the mold. Photos of recognizable buildings such as the Library of Congress, the Capitol Dome and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are included in the exhibit and the book, but Gottlieb’s mission is to separate his pictures of those landmarks from those by other photographers.

“I always say Washington is the easiest city in America to photograph because it is the most beautiful, the most open, the most diverse in terms of architecture, sculpture and museums,” he said. “But paradoxically, it is the most difficult because it is the most photographed city. It’s only difficult if you want to do something different.”

One way Gottlieb was able to distinguish himself was by climbing on the roof of the Supreme Court — legally, of course. Gottlieb received permission to photograph the Capitol Dome from the top of the Supreme Court building at sunset, and the angle and colors of the image make it a memorable shot.  

“Sunsets and sunrises are very challenging because every photographer has gotten up early and photographed Washington,” he said. “To do something where people look and it’s not the traditional Capitol Dome and the Reflecting Pool, which has been done over and over — to have a new way of looking at it — is the great challenge.” 

Susan Bodiker, UDC’s executive director of marketing and communications, said the university was a natural host for the exhibit because of its obvious ties to the District.

But one additional connection between Gottlieb and UDC is that the work of Gottlieb’s father, William, a photographer of jazz musicians, was featured in an event earlier in the year. 

Gottlieb recognized that anyone can photograph the Washington Monument or the Supreme Court building, but he hopes his images stand out because of their quality and because of his former life as a lawyer in the District.

“Washington: Portrait of a City” will be on display at the university’s Learning Resources Division (building 41, level A) on the main campus at 4200 Connecticut Ave. NW through Dec. 17.